Let’s Read the Internet! week 8

Wind-Powered Perpetual Motion
Why the Directly-Downwind Faster Than the Wind Car Works”
Mark Chu-Carroll on Good Math, Bad Math

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Socrates would have to be a fan of the scientific method. We frequently acclaim the shift towards naturalism in Western thought, as a turning point in our intellectual maturity, but that shift brought with it the less-recognized roots of an even higher goal – the eradication of hubris in the search for understanding. Naturalism, the philosophical position that empirical observation holds the final word in debates on truth, essentially kills the argument of “because I say so.” Truth comes from no one in particular, so there’s at least the faint possibility that people trying to understand the way things work will some day no longer jockey and battle to be “the one who got it right.” That’s a far-out ideal, and maybe if nobody thought they were going to be credited with brilliance, nobody would have the incentive to try to do something brilliant in the first place. But at the very least, when two naturalists have an argument, they can frequently appeal to a common, impartial, higher source – nature – as arbiter.

That’s what’s happened here on Mark Chu-Carroll’s widely-read blog. He initially, and incorrectly, believed a certain device that drives overland into the wind and faster than the wind was a fraud. After long, long debates, he changed his mind, and carefully explained the mistakes in his own reasoning and what he had learned in the process of investigating his own error. Which is pretty much awesome, because such things hardly ever occur in arguments on less savory topics, like abortion. (Oh my God, was that an eating-dead-babies joke?)

I also appreciated the sort of emergent didactic property of the hundred-some post comment thread on Chu-Carroll’s original post. After watching the youtube video of the device (linked from the original post), I wasn’t completely sure whether the treadmill test was fair. It seemed reasonable enough, but I certainly wouldn’t have been prepared to defend it against someone eager to argue the opposite way.

As I read the thread, commenters raised most of the points I was considering. Other people answered those points, and then even more people chimed in with takes that I hadn’t considered at all. The overall effect was for a large amount of white noise and repetition, but also for a strikingly-diverse set of mindsets converging on the same problem. By the time I was done reading what everyone had to say, I felt that I had appreciated more intricacies in the problem than I would ever have discovered thinking about it alone, and I probably understood it better than I would have even if a single skilled author had written a long exposition. The challenge of interpreting each new voice’s arguments, incorporating them with the previous knowledge, and then parsing all of it for myself over and over, trying to find holes in everyone’s logic and patch together a firm understanding piece by piece, was absorbing because it’s so much more interactive than simply reading one single person’s explanation, no matter how clear, detailed, or precise.

It makes me want to argue about physics more often, but only in the good way where your ego doesn’t get too involved.

A Russian Teacher In America
Andre Toom, linked from God Plays Dice

A long essay that’s a borderline sob story about the woes of the American educational system. As a private tutor, I see exactly the sort of problems Toom is discussing on a daily basis – students, even (or perhaps especially) the “good” students, are so maniacally focused on their grade that learning becomes completely lost amidst a sea of test-cramming, and question-memorizing. Students are so wrapped up in the concrete performance markers visible to the world, that they don’t care at all for their true progress, visible chiefly to themselves.

That, at least, is the picture. I only partially buy it. It’s true, to varying degrees, for many students. But it’s not as if this entire nation has no one left interested in math. The sad part is that over two hundred or so students I’ve had, there have been a handful who are truly interested in math and physics, but they seldom have much guidance. Because these kids can gets A’s in math class, no one in public school is very concerned with pushing their limits when there are too many problem kids to worry about first. So I’m more interested in people with plans on how to reach interested young students with extra-curricular math opportunities than I am with people deriding a broken system.

Not everyone is going to love math. In fact, I doubt there’s ever been a society where a majority of people are interested. But the vast majority of our society has to take it in school. So yeah, it’s inevitable that there are lots of people taking math who don’t care about math. But I’ve done the same thing in a literature class before. Ultimately, math is cool enough that some people are going to discover it no matter what the educational system is like, so I’m not all that worried about the alarm bells being rung here.

Blow to Vitamins as Antidote to Ageing
James Randerson at The Guardian

We thought we understood, like, everything. Turns out not. But the next study that comes out will surely reveal the secrets to perfect health once and for all…

Swiss Approve Heroin Scheme but Vote Down Marijuana Law

Sounds like a pretty good plan to me. Administer heroin to addicts in a safe, controlled environment, thereby reducing health risks and driving down the general nastiness associated with black market activity. I can also understand why you wouldn’t want to legalize marijuana in just one small portion of Europe, since everyone would then go there just to smoke. The same argument doesn’t hold as much water for the US with its block-like geography, but I live in California, where marijuana is as good as legal anyway.

Tara Donovan

from Three Quarks Daily

The Not-So-Presidential Debate

The Not So Presidential Debate from aaron sedlak on Vimeo.
also from Three Quarks Daily

Why Punishment Is Worth It In The End
Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science

Read this article or else! Nah, honestly I would never be able to go through life as someone who tried to understand human interactions by designing toy experiments like this. But It’s nice to get little sixty-second summaries of their months of hard labor.

Over-budget Mars rover mission delayed until 2011
Rachel Courtland at New Scientist

Bad news, since I work at the place where they’re building this thing, and they owe me two months’ back pay already.

15 of the World’s Most Creative Papercraft Artists

You get to feeling a little bit sleazy when you realize all the exposure you’ve had to art in the last two years has come in the form of internet lists with titles like “The Top Ten Totally Badass Avant-Garde Experimental Playdoh Exhibitions of 2008!!” But on the other hand, some of this stuff actually is pretty badass, for being a paper sculpture of a cat.

A Happy/Unhappy New Pair of Studies
Stephen Black at Improbable Research

Among the headlines of news feeds I scanned through this week, there must have been at least ten stories referencing a recent paper purporting to show that happiness is “contagious”, that is, if I were to reach down and magically make your friends happy, you would become happy as well. When I first heard about this, I was intrigued, because I was wondering how you would establish this is a “contagious” effect, and not just correlation. It turns out: you don’t. The researchers, from what I can tell, simply found a correlation and announced that happiness is contagious. News stories are apparently contagious, too, because once word of this paper got out, most of the major science news outlets published something on the story.

But as the link describes, another study found that height was also “contagious”. That is, if your friends are tall, it’s likely you’re tall, too. Just as with happiness.

Sine of an Inscribed Angle
Brent Yorgey on The Math Less Traveled

A cute visualization of the law of sines.

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